Will the 2017 State of the Union speech even mention climate change?


As I sit down to write this, President Obama is preparing to deliver his final State of the Union address to the American people. Over the last seven years, the speech has been something of a mixed bag when it comes to the all-important issue of climate change. On a few occasions, the president has been practically poetic when it comes to the need for Americans to take seriously the science of global warming, and for Congress to act on that knowledge to help save the planet. But for a few other years, when Obama was down in the polls and getting beat up by his critics, he gave short shrift to the problem of greenhouse-gas pollution, which was an unfortunate lost opportunity.

When it comes to influencing public opinion, there is no greater bully pulpit than the one Mr. Obama will be standing at this evening. What’s remarkable is that after the applause from the 2016 address dies down, the American people may not here the phase “climate change” uttered in a State of the Union address for a long, long time. That’s because none of the remaining dozen or so candidates on the GOP side of the 2016 presidential race are willing to even admit that man-made global warming is a serious problem. If the Republican candidate wins in November, he or she will probably be dealing next winter with a friendly GOP-led Congress as well, and so the problem won’t be merely a matter of ignoring climate change but a case of Washington actively rolling back anti-pollution laws to help their big-money allies in Big Oil and Big Gas.

Over at Grist, Ben Adler has a piece looking at the reality that any real U.S. progress on climate change will come only through executive action, and that Obama has just 12 months to pull this agenda off. Here’s some of his suggestions:

•  Reform fossil fuel leasing on federal lands.

This is the biggest priority for climate activists because it has the most potential to clamp down on emissions. The federal government leases a lot of land to private companies for extraction of oil, gas, and, coal. The prices it charges are often below the market rates — especially for coal — and don’t account for the social costs of conventional pollution or of climate change. On the left, groups like 350.org and politicians like Bernie Sanders have proposed simply banning fossil fuel extraction on federal lands altogether, under the banner of “keep in in the ground.”

The Obama administration has shown no appetite for that, but Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in March of 2015 that they would start to examine the climate impact of leasing programs. We haven’t seen any action yet, but based in part on conversations with administration officials, environmental lobbyists say they are encouraged. “I think there’s increased interest in the administration about, at the very least, addressing the give-away price,” says David Goldston, director of government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We’ll be pressing for action, but there seems to be more openness than there has been.”

•  Ban offshore oil drilling in the Arctic and off the Atlantic coast.

A year ago, the Obama administration proposed opening up new coastal areas to drilling, including parts of the Chukchi Sea northwest of Alaska and waters off the shores of the southeastern U.S. That was a bad move, but the plan has not yet been finalized, so the administration could still change course.

The environmental community has pushed back hard against these new drilling plans. Last year, activists protested Arctic drilling by blocking Shell ships in Seattle and Portland. Along the affected stretch of the Atlantic coast, from Virginia to Georgia, communities have been coming out against drilling as well. Green groups are calling on the administration to remove both areas from its drilling plan, and activists say they are optimistic. “The administration is much more aggressive on climate now,” says Goldston. “Opposition on the East Coast has been stronger than expected.”

I concur with that last statement — because I’ve been on the warpath about this issue for months. This is the biggest remaining inconsistency in Obama’s environmental policy, and I remain hopeful for a last-minute reversal of course.  The Grist essay also notes the EPA can — and should — take harsher steps to limit methane gas leaks from oil-and-gas facilities, a growing problem, and that the administration should finish its work on big-truck mileage standards, limiting a kind of pollutant from refrigeration systems called HFCs, and stopping fracking rigs from excessive “flaring.”

The Obama administration needs to move smartly on these matters, and it needs to move quickly. The window for guaranteed, positive  action on climate change keeps getting smaller and smaller.

Read more from Ben Adler at Grist about the actions that the Obama administration can still take on global warming: http://grist.org/climate-energy/heres-what-obama-can-still-do-to-fight-climate-change-in-his-final-year/

Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on Americahttp://shop.benbellabooks.com/crude-justice

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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